The Battle of Stoke Field – Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses?

Michèle Schindler

4 mins

17 Jun 2019

On 16 June 1487 a battle that has been described as the last armed combat of the Wars of the Roses took place near East Stoke, between the forces of King Henry VII and rebel forces led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, and Francis Lovell, Viscount Lovell.

Supported by mercenaries paid for by Margaret of York, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy and sister of Richard III, the rebellion presented a serious challenge to Henry VII, who had been on the throne for 22 months by June 1487.

Yorkist rebellion

Lincoln, who had been Richard III`s nephew and heir presumptive, and Lovell, Richard`s closest friend, who had already rebelled in 1486, began planning their rebellion in early 1487. Having fled to Margaret`s court in Burgundy, they gathered a force of disaffected Yorkists to join the mercenaries organised by the dowager duchess.

Their aim was to replace Henry VII with Lambert Simnel, a pretender who is traditionally said to have been a lowborn boy pretending to be Edward, Earl of Warwick. This boy was crowned as King Edward in Dublin on 24 May 1487 with a lot of Irish support. Soon afterwards, the rebels made their way to England, landing there on 4 June.

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After landing, the rebels separated. Lovell, with a group of mercenaries, arrived at Bramham Moor on 9 June to intercept Lord Clifford, who led around 400 soldiers to join the royal forces. Not aware of how close the enemy already was, Clifford stopped at Tadcaster on 10 June to stay until the next day.

First blood

That night, Lovell`s men launched a surprise attack on him. The York Civic Records state that the Yorkist forces ‘cam upon the said Lord Clifford folkes and made a grete skrymisse’ in the town.

It then goes on to to claim, however, that, suffering defeat, Clifford ‘with such folkes as he might get, retourned to the Citie again’, suggesting at some point they had left Tadcaster to meet the Yorkist forces in combat.

It is therefore not certain what exactly happened that night, except that Lovell and the forces he led defeated Lord Clifford, sending him fleeing, leaving his equipment and luggage behind.

At the same time that Lovell and his forces enjoyed this success, the Earl of Lincoln tried making new allies while slowly moving to meet the royal army. Though Lovell’s raid was successful, Lincoln`s endeavour was less so. Perhaps due to prudence, the City of York closed their gates to the Yorkists, who had to march on. Lovell’s forces joined Lincoln’s on 12 June, and on 16 June 1487 their army met Henry VII’s near East Stoke, and engaged in combat.

The Coat of Arms of Sir Francis Lovell. Image credit: Rs-nourse / Commons.

The Battle of Stoke Field: 16 June 1487

Little is known about the actual battle itself, not even who was present. Strangely, though information about the identity of the boy they fought for is scarce, more is known about who fought for the Yorkist rebels than who fought for Henry VII. We know that Lovell and Lincoln led their army, together with the Irish earl of Desmond, and the Bavarian mercenary Martin Schwartz.

Less is known about Henry VII’s forces. It appears that his army was led by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who had also led his forces at Bosworth, and who had been involved in the campaign against the rebels from the first. The presence of the queen’s uncle Edward Woodville, Lord Scales, is also certain, as is that of Rhys ap Thomas, a substantial Welsh supporter of Henry, of John Paston and, ironically, of Lovell’s brother-in-law Edward Norris, husband of his younger sister.

However, the presence of Henry`s uncle Jasper, Duke of Bedford, is not confirmed. It is usually assumed he took a leading part, but he is not mentioned in any contemporary source, so that a question mark hangs over his actions, or lack thereof, during the battle.

Though only the names of some fighters are known (their actions and in fact even the tactics of either side are shrouded in myth), what is known is that the battle took rather longer than the Battle of Bosworth had done. It has been estimated that it lasted around three hours, and hung in the balance for a while. Eventually, however, the Yorkists were defeated and Henry VII`s forces won the day.

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Why did Henry win the battle?

There has been much speculation regarding this. Polydore Vergil, writing years later for Henry VII and his son, claimed that one factor was that Kildare`s Irish forces had only old-fashioned weapons, which meant they were quite easily defeated by the more modern weapons of the royal forces and that without their support, the rest of the rebel forces were outnumbered and eventually defeated.

It has also been claimed that in fact the opposite was the case, that the Swiss and German mercenaries’ then state of the art guns and firearms backfired a lot and many fighters were killed by their own weapons, fatally weakening the Yorkist army.

Whether or not either of those theories are true, most of the rebel leaders were killed during the battle. Vergil claimed that they died bravely standing their ground in the face of defeat, but once more, the truth of who died when cannot be ascertained. It is a fact though that Martin Schwartz, the Earl of Desmond and John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln died during or just after the battle.

Of the Yorkist leaders, only Lovell survived. He was last seen escaping the royal forces by swimming on horseback across the river Trent. After that, his fate is unknown.

Henry VII’s position on the throne was strengthened by his forces’ victory. His men took custody of the young pretender, who was put to work in the royal kitchen, though there are theories that this was a ruse and the real pretender fell in battle.

The Yorkists’ defeat weakened the position of all of Henry`s enemies, and it was two years until the next rebellion against him.

Michèle Schindler studied at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, reading English Studies and history with a focus on medieval studies. In addition to English and German, she is fluent in French, and reads Latin. ‘Lovell Our Dogge: The Life of Viscount Lovell, Closest Friend of Richard III and Failed Regicide’ is her first book, published by Amberley Publishing.

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